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BEA staff looks at ‘13 Reasons Why’

By Staff | May 14, 2017

A student thinks about the suicide death of a friend in this image from the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.”

Educators nationwide have plotted ways to defuse its potential impact, and the National Association of Psychologists says it may lead “impressionable viewers to romanticize” suicide or “develop revenge fantasies” thanks to graphic depictions of everything from rape and drunk driving to adolescent bullying.

But “13 Reasons Why,” in its less-than-two-month lifespan as Netflix’s newest original online series, is all the rage with the type of young-adult audience on which its very story is centered.

Already renewed for a second season, set to premiere in 2018, amid widespread popularity as an adaptation of the 2007 novel “Thirteen Reasons Why,” it follows a 17-year-old girl who takes her own life, then unveils through audio tapes how 13 different peers contributed to her suicide.

The show’s exact influence has been unclear. And the disparity of opinion on its mature content is stark.

One thing, however, is certain: Conversations about “13 Reasons Why,” and perhaps 13 reasons why not, are happening.

BEA eighth-graders Jordan Smith, Miya Gustafson, Makayla Hernandez and Amarrah Harris smile in the BEA High School office, where they talked with social worker Ann Huntley about “13 Reasons Why.”

And they are happening, as is true across the nation, in the Blue Earth Area (BEA) School District.

“Actually, I’d first seen something on the national news about it,” said BEA high school principal Rich Schneider, who informed the district’s School Board May 8 of the show’s notoriety. “Then Fairmont had sent something out, and our guidance counselor, Patti Lindsey, made note of it.”

It did not take long before Schneider caught wind of the series’ explicit content and, in a piggybacking of schools from Georgia, Virginia and even Canada, sent to parents and guardians of BEA students in grades 6-12 a letter addressing the show.

The memo, signed by BEA’s K-7 principals Dave Dressler and Melissa McGuire, does not condemn “13 Reasons Why” but offers links to three online resources regarding the show and its portrayal of suicide, including considerations from the National Association of Psychologists (NASP).

Some BEA students, like freshman Katrina Acciari and junior Mya Johnson, cite the series itself as a resource for combating things like bullying and suicide.

“It’s an eye opener,” said Acciari, who was drawn to the show by its good reviews on Netflix. “It might make you snap into it and see how it all would impact your family … although you possibly have to watch the whole way through to get the real message.”

Dedicating time to the entire series, however, is one of the concerns that Schneider said he and other educators have for certain students.

“What about the ones who go home, unsupervised, and are binge watching?” he said. “If it’s 13 hours, think about the impact that can have.”

Johnson, who echoed some of Acciari’s sentiments, had little trouble breezing through the show’s first season, finishing all 13 episodes two days after hearing about it on social media.

Still, she found “13 Reasons Why” to be more of a lesson than an infection.

“I think it is a good show,” Johnson said, “and everybody should watch it at least once, because it shows reasons why she killed herself and how you could have helped her.”

Cautions from NACP suggest that other aspects of the show, like a second suicide depicted in the series climax, the absence of a trusted alternative to suicide or an unspoken depiction of the central suicide victim as a martyr for vengeance, may outweigh the anti-bullying message.

Amarrah Harris, Makayla Hernandez and Miya Gustafson, BEA eighth-graders researching suicide for school papers, all took a liking to the show but validated such concerns, noting that the series could push already-unstable viewers “over the edge.”

“It depends on the person,” Harris said of the series’ impact.

And yet, as Schneider and Ann Huntley, BEA’s social worker of more than 20 years, agreed, no such cautions are guaranteed to halt students from consuming the 13-episode story.

“What we hope is that if it’s watched, it’s watched with conversation,” Huntley said. “I don’t think all parents even know their kids are watching.”

Another BEA eighth-grader, Jordan Smith, said she cannot watch the show until her mother approves it but estimated that plenty of other students have watched “13 Reasons Why,” or checked out one of BEA Media Center’s three copies of the book that inspired it, without parental guidance.

Admitting there is a fine line between encouraging positive behavior and policing households from school, Schneider said educators faced a similar media-induced scare when “Mean Girls,” a 2004 teen comedy centered on social cliques, hit theaters.

“I understand the premise of it,” he said. “But we do have to model for them (the students) some kind of acceptable behavior, especially when a big part of their social interaction comes through media.”

Better understanding and monitoring media, Schneider added, may very well be the key to or, in a broader sense, more important than addressing concerns specifically with unsupervised consumption of “13 Reasons Why.”

“My fear is it’s similar to the problem with bullying,” he said. “Often, it happens online and after what we’d consider a healthy bedtime.”

Huntley, who leads high school classes geared toward helping students eat, sleep and cope better, had similar thoughts.

“Now, more than ever, mental health issues are way up, and we see so much every day,” she said. “You have to have accountability and build relationships where kids can come and talk.”

Discussion, then, is vital, at least in the eyes of BEA’s leadership.

Maybe “13 Reasons Why” has been watched in local households, with approval, supervision or even in the wake of negligence.

Maybe it has not.

Maybe it offers insights on the hardships of adolescence.

Maybe it inflames them.

All BEA administrators want, as students, parents and the nation form their own opinions, is for that conversation to be had.